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When the Job Candidate Can't Count

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If you can't do simple math, maybe you can become a public-school superintendent. No basic math skill is required for this job that pays a six-digit annual salary plus generous benefits. Not bad in a time of high unemployment for white-collar workers.

Recently I served on an advisory committee to select a superintendent for our 3,000-student local school district. After a nationwide search, a consultant presented to the school board and advisory committee seven semifinalists. The seven, the consultant assured us, were "highly qualified,'' each with at least five years of experience of overseeing a public-school district.

We were very excited that these accomplished individuals had shown interest in our district, which has its share of problems in dropouts, drugs, teenage pregnancies, and mediocre academic performance.

Indeed, the candidates came prepared. Some were eloquent, some low-keyed; some demonstrated savvy in dealing with unions, some adeptness in financial management. All spoke in the latest educational jargon of "site-based management,'' "empowerment,'' "stakeholders,'' and "building principals.'' All were eager to show their commitment to children. "I care''--the Bush-campaign sound bite--was echoed seven times.

The tricky issue of multiculturalism was no banana peel for these candidates. Their well-rehearsed answers resounded with political correctness. One candidate vowed to devote personal attention to each minority student in the district. "We are talking about 40 percent of 3,000 students,'' he said, referring to the minority component of the student body. "That's only 250 students. I can get to know each of them and their families.''

Incredulous, we listened to his spiel, in which the implausible number was repeated several times to underscore the "personalization'' point. This candidate's sleight of hand with numbers cropped up again and again. He claimed in his resume that he had reduced a school's annual maintenance cost from $25,000 to $5,000. In his oral presentation, the horrendous waste was jacked up to $30,000. His resume told us he had improved staff attendance from 69 percent to 97 percent, but another document he submitted put the improved result at 91.4 percent. In these instances, he at least got the concept right--you need to inflate the larger sum from which a smaller sum is subtracted in order to boost the outcome.

Should a superintendent who flunks 4th-grade math be required to take a remedial class? As he asserted his readiness to identify woes of the system, did this candidate realize that maybe he was the problem?

I asked the seven candidates if they thought the depressing state of education portrayed in the news media was accurate. Only one admitted that we had serious problems. The other six bristled that the media were on an "education bashing'' trip. One claimed that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he would rate the quality of public education in this country at 9.

Our public education is a monopoly. As parents and taxpayers, we can only hope that our children's interest is served by the school staff. The innumeracy and the complacency of the educational cadre make me wonder if throwing more money into the system could make it better. The superintendent who can't count has had a "successful'' career; now he is pampered and sought after. As the vacancies rise, superintendent searches are taking place almost everywhere.

Public school districts should recruit superintendents from a pool of nontraditional candidates. The Milwaukee school board last year, for example, chose a social-services administrator to head the 98,000-student school district. In New York State, school boards can petition to the Commission of Education to exempt the post from a teaching-experience requirement. Public schools can benefit from the fresh insight, broad perspective, and skills gained managing a complex organization that leaders from outside education bring with them.

With industrial "downsizing'' widespread, surely there is a large pool of unemployed or underemployed business executives who are bottom-line conscious and know firsthand how the United States is losing its competitiveness because of an ill-educated workforce.

Nailene Chou Wiest is a journalist living in Ossining, N.Y.

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